Comparing Honolulu’s Elevated Rail to Express Lanes, Based on Economic Growth

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BY PANOS PREVEDOUROS – The National Transportation Policy Project (NTPP) sponsored by the Bipartisan Policy Center produced Performance Driven: New Vision for U.S. Transportation Policy.

Let’s analyze how 20 miles of rail with 21 stations and 10 miles of High Occupancy and Toll (HOT) lanes would score in an application in Honolulu based on NTPP Goal 1, which is Economic Growth. This goal has four metrics but two of them relate to long-distance commerce and travel; they apply to Hawaii only when maritime or air transportation is considered.


In order to reach a bottom line, the best alternative for each goal will receive a score of 10 and the second best will receive a relative score between 0 and 10.

The NTPP metrics address deeper goals and treat congestion as an outcome. For congestion relief alone HOT lanes would score a 10 and rail a 1.

Brief System Descriptions

RAIL: Fully elevated heavy rail starting about a mile east of Kapolei in the middle of prime agricultural land (presently Aloun and other farms) and ending inside Ala Moana Center with 21 stations and three or four park and ride facilities accommodating fewer than 5,000 cars. Headways are 3 minutes in peak periods, 6 minutes off peak. Trains have a capacity of 300 people of which two thirds are standees. It is a double track design with no express trains. The system will recover 0 percent of the capital costs and only 10 percent-20 percent of its operations and maintenance (O&M) costs from fares. Capital cost estimated at $5.4 billion and annual O&M cost at $70 million/year.

HOT Lanes: 10 miles of elevated 3-lane reversible expressway designed for High Occupancy and Toll operation where buses and large carpools enter free. Low and solo occupancy vehicles pay a graduated toll (e.g., from $0.50 to $5.00). The toll is “congestion insurance.” Paying the toll guarantees 50 mph travel at all times. Higher tolls are necessary to discourage overloading. The facility has Aloha Stadium as its anchor (mid-point) and has exits at Pearl Harbor, Lagoon Drive and Waiakamilo. It starts at the H-1/H-2 merge and ends in Iwilei. The 2.2 miles from Keehi Interchange to Iwilei is a shovel ready project (signed EIS) as “The Nimitz Viaduct.) The system will recover at least one third of its capital costs and 100 percent of its O&M costs from tolls. Capital cost estimated at $1.7 billion and annual O&M cost at $20 million/year.

Access to jobs and labor (metropolitan accessibility)

RAIL: National research has shown that rail’s limited reach does not help the jobless to find jobs and is not helpful for those with multiple jobs; and we have many of the latter on Oahu. Rail is a mode for white collar commuters; this is a relatively small market in Hawaii’s service oriented and dispersed industry. Many workers drop off or pick up children from school before work; rail is no good for them. Combinations of rail and bus and walk for door-to-door travel result in uncompetitive travel times compared to direct bus, carpool or car modes. Rail’s original score of 4 is further reduced by 2 points because rail is incapable of providing transportations for goods and services which are vital for the economy and part of this criterion. Score = 4-2 = 2.

HOT Lanes: Nationally HOT lanes is the solution for rapid transportation and the best way to make express buses competitive with the auto and succeed in getting people “out of their cars.” An express bus from Waikele or Waipio on the HOT lanes would reach downtown in less than 20 minutes in the middle of rush hour. These express buses can continue to major destinations in Kalihi, Kakaako, Waikiki, and UH. Also Oahu has among the nation’s highest carpool and vanpool rates. HOT lanes are designed to serve these high occupancy modes. HOT lanes provide fast travel for the provision of services (e.g., an electrician can get from Kapolei to Kalihi in under 30 minutes at 7 AM) and offer congestion relief to parallel routes (e.g., H-1 Freeway) which is used heavily for transporting goods. Score = 10.

Access to non-work activities (metropolitan accessibility)

RAIL: A very small portion of the population should be expected to use rail for non-work activities such as groceries, shopping, social visits, school events, soccer practice, night clubbing, out on a date, etc. Rail loses 1 point for being unable to be of any use during an emergency such as freeway closure, flooding, hurricane and tsunami. Score = 6-1 = 5.

HOT Lanes: The Honolulu design is for a reversible configuration which is tailored to serve commuting flows so it only partially improves access to the variety of non-work activities that people engage in. It is tailored however to work well for large events at Aloha Stadium by working in-bound to the stadium before the event starts and out-bound at event’s end for quick evacuation. The HOT lanes can also serve as a reliable emergency-only backbone during an emergency. Score = 10.

Based on the Economic Growth goal and its two metrics, HOT Lanes score 20 points and Elevated Rail scores 7 points.

Stay tuned for two more installments based on NTPP Goals 2 and 3, and an overall summary.

Panos Prevedouros, PhD is professor of civil engineering at the University of Hawaii and past candidate for Honolulu mayor. He can be reached at





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